Do you even brand, bro?

It's almost halfway through 2019, yet I continue to encounter branding people who still think that "brand" = creative assets produced by a company (ie. logo, fonts, colors, taglines, language, etc) and that growing a brand = repetitive mentions or representations of those assets.

It's been over 20 years since Al and Laura Ries wrote the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding - that means it was written pre-social media, pre-Digital/Information Age (or at least way too early in the age to make any real impact), and pre-Direct to Consumer brand explosion. A lot has changed since 1998 and, though the book has been updated to include more recent examples and ideas, the "immutability" of these laws is highly questionable.

Does Branding Matter in the Digital Age?

Yes, absolutely. A brand is still one of the core elements of a marketing strategy, but it encompasses (and always has encompassed) way more than creative assets.

Brand is the result of how the customer experiences a product or service in a way that differentiates the brand from the competition.

Brand is the result of how the customer experiences a product or service in a way that differentiates the brand from the competition. Sometimes that includes design - think Apple products vs IBM products - but it also includes usability, customer service, quality, availability, price, reputation, relatability, and much more.

The key here is that it's about the customer, not the brand itself. It's how it fits into their lives. How it helps them achieve their goals. How it supports what they care about. How it empowers them.

So, if you're trying to grow a brand, but you're too focused on you, you won't succeed.

What about Brand Recognition?

It's true that repeating messages or getting in front of your desired audience with a consistent message will lead to higher brand recognition and that brand recognition helps increase favorability in the decision process. But what is also true is that the customer journey and decision-making process today is more complicated than ever:

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Number one, just because a brand is recognized doesn't mean that the consumer will choose it. There are many considerations that consumers go through in their journey and, even though awareness of your brand could land you on the consideration list, everything from reviews to price to convenience to how well you connect with that consumer will sway their decision. Your super cool tagline will not likely factor into this decision.

Number two, there is such a thing as OVER-exposure. In fact, too much brand exposure may work against a brand. Between annoyance, loss of brand trust, and brand fatigue - all potentially leading to a decline in favorability and, ultimately, a loss of revenue - your brand saturation could be doing more harm than good.

And number three, don't forget the competition. Between direct-to-consumer brands, programmatic advertising, and a bevy of accessible self-serve tools available for every business and upstart in the world, competition for brand recognition has gotten fierce. You need a lot of money to break through the noise. And when you do break through the noise, you'll need your message to land.

And believe me when I say that:

Nobody Cares about your Brand

The faster you come to terms with this idea, the better off you'll be.

People fall in love with brands when the brands help them be smarter, sexier, stronger, richer, cooler, faster, healthier, happier, more attractive, and otherwise achieve their dreams and improve their lives.

Some of the biggest brands we know and love are successful because they realized this early on and dug into it. They listened to their customers and reflected their hopes and dreams back to them. They made everything they did about their customers. They morphed their brands into being as relevant to their customers as possible.

Think about a brand you love. Maybe it's your car. Describe why you love this car. Listen to your reasoning. I can almost guarantee you that you describe how you feel when you drive the car: peace of mind (safety), the thrill of speed (performance), or pride of accomplishment (status). Maybe it's an app like Netflix. Once again, I bet that it's about your own experience and how it makes you feel.

I can guarantee you that nobody will cite the logo or fonts or hex numbers of the colors to describe why they love (or even why they chose) a brand. Yes, that consistency helps verify the authenticity and the familiarity of, say, that ba-dum sound that Netflix makes when you fire it up, deepens our bond with the brand, but it's not what makes people care. It becomes important after they care.

Balancing Brand Desires with Customer Desires

You will reach your goals faster if you put your customers' goals first.

Think of it in a dating metaphor. When on your first date, you may be inclined to tell the person how awesome you are and how much they should want to be with you, but we all know that this is a losing strategy. The better approach is to spend the date asking them about themselves, listening and responding to their stories by reflecting your similarities back to them. If they talk about how they love skiing and you happen to love skiing, this is a great opportunity to bond. If they talk about how they love skiing, but you've never tried, you need to listen and learn and indicate that you'd be willing to try.

Early brand development should be about listening and learning and figuring out how to bond with your audience.

When you are building your brand, you may also be inclined to tell your potential customers how awesome you are and how they should want to buy from you, but this, too, is a losing strategy. Just like on the first date, early brand development should be about listening and learning and figuring out how to bond with your audience. This should take as much, if not more, energy than getting your messages out into the world.

Many people think that early-stage brand building means that you should spend more time reinforcing your messages and increasing your recognition, but in actuality, you should be working on listening and shaping your brand early on. The bigger push for brand recognition should actually come when you have a strong customer base that requires those symbols for deepening their bond with the brand.

As your brand becomes a household name and you are empowering them, your customers will care about your brand and want to leverage the assets to signal their pride.

When your brand means something - and not because of your logo, but because of how you've made people feel - they will want to celebrate their association with it.

And, even then, your brand symbols are just that: symbols. They aren't a replacement for everything else that attracted people or helped them fall in love. If your car company started producing crappy cars or Netflix stopped creating shows we love, the logos and fonts and messages would come to represent something negative for us.

So, yeah bro, do you even brand? Because when you ask to make the logo bigger or only want to post images to social media that are "on brand," I don't think you understand branding at all.